Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99, 262 pages
The centenary of the outbreak of the first world war is two years away and fiction continues to till the soil trampled by British boots in the trenches. In the past two years alone there have been novels by Alan Hollinghurst (The Stranger’s Child), Louisa Young (My Dear I Wanted To Tell You) and Elizabeth Speller (The Return of Captain John Emmett). Now, Pat Barker, who made the first world war her domain with the Regeneration trilogy (1991-1995), returns to it in her first novel for five years, Toby’s Room.
How to begin a novel of the Great War? Conventionally, with the summer idyll before its outbreak: 1912 is a good moment. Middle-class families picnic in sunshine, girls float across lawns in white frocks. Barker begins her impressive novel in this dappled sunlight but soon jolts us with a series of shocks. In the first chapter, Elinor, a student at the Slade school of art, arrives home to the countryside. We learn that she has seen her father on a London street, hustling his mistress into a cab. Secrets exist from the beginning. Next day, she walks with her brother Toby to the old mill, the forbidden place of their childhood, where he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape her.
Later that night she goes to his room and, we assume, they have sex. Incest before the war has even started. Back at art school she is given the task of drawing a dissected corpse. So pre-war marital hypocrisy gives way to sexual taboo and then to the violated corpse.
Five years later Toby is classified as “Missing, Believed Killed”. What remains of him is his tunic and a half-written letter found in it, prophesying with certainty his own death the following day. The tunic contains “the smell of the front line. Filthy water, chlorine, gas, decomposition”. The stench pervades the house, even when the parcel is stored in the attic.
Elinor determines to find out how Toby died by talking to Kit Neville, a formerly glamorous fellow student at the Slade whose face has been mutilated. Elinor’s teacher, Henry Tonks, a real-life Slade art teacher and former surgeon, is documenting the effects of clumsy facial reconstruction surgery in a series of pastel drawings at the hospital where Kit is recovering. (These can be viewed online, and are heartbreaking to look at.)
Enlisting the services of a former boyfriend, Paul Tarrant, Elinor goes to confront Kit, who was mentioned in Toby’s last letter, and finds herself working for Tonks at the hospital. Much of the story of Kit’s disfigurement and Toby’s fate is then told through Kit’s hallucinatory nightmares, which is how the battlefront must have seemed: a hellish dreamscape of the inexplicable, terrifying and confused. But London appears as equally phantasmagoric. Barker writes a fine chapter in which Paul and Kit visit the West End, Kit in a borrowed mask: “A featureless, silvery oval hovering in the half-darkness, as if a deranged, wandering moon had somehow strayed into the building.” Behind the mask, Paul realises, Kit could do, or be, anything. He has a licence to make trouble.
The supporting cast is strong but it is in the characters of Elinor and Toby that the focus of interest lies. Philip Larkin, in his poem “MCMXIV”, pins down the “moustached archaic faces”, farthings, sovereigns, tin advertisements of the last days of peace. Barker, rightly, has never bothered with period detail. Her characters feel modern because their views were modern at the time. She does not try to recapture their past but instead recasts it in their present. Elinor – damaged, autonomous, morally obtuse – believes that even painting the war contaminates art, while hospital work is the illusion that you have no blood on your hands because you aren’t driving the machine. Toby, seen only at the beginning and end of the novel, is a complex character, forcefully alive.
Moral and physical disgust is pervasive amid the unhappy, thwarted sex lives of Barker’s characters, and the attempt to determine what a face really is. The first loose threads that are unpicked in the destruction of Elinor’s seemingly happy family life are already there in 1912.
The revelation of what became of Toby and why there is no body to bury is, inevitably, an act of shocking violence, unexpected but in keeping with Barker’s genre: the late 20th- and early 21st-century fiction of the first world war. This is a British phenomenon, for it was a conflict fought mainly by Europeans, and a war that redefined the British character. The second world war has become, in English-language fiction, largely US territory. We in Britain keep picking over the traces of the front, now finally passed out of living memory, to give us clues about who we are and how we became ourselves.
Linda Grant’s most recent novel is ‘We Had It So Good’ (Virago)